WALLA WALLA -- Until recently, there was one missing ingredient in Ron Wilkinson's dream.
For more than a decade, the College Place businessman has been working to reach the twin goalposts of producing high-quality bread locally while reducing the carbon footprint of the bread industry globally.
He also was in search of the last piece of the puzzle: making a quantifiable difference in communities in need.
In 2007, a Union-Bulletin story highlighted Wilkinson's Bread Bakery, said to be the only fully automated, self-contained commercial bread-baking machine. At more than 4,000 pounds and 4 feet wide, 10 feet long and 7 feet high, the machine could mix, knead, form and bake 40 loaves of bread per hour, two types at a time.
At the time, the concept was 35 years old.
Although the Bread Bakery was in the research and design stage at the time, the company founder thought the bakery would be ready for commercial launch within the year.
Turned out, that loaf was not fully risen.
Food and safety inspections revealed tweaks Wilkinson and his team of engineers could make to pare down the bakery's size while increasing the theatrical component of watching one's own bread bake. "We hid the wires and motors of the previous bread bakery," Wilkinson explained in his design center last week. "The new machine is much leaner, less complicated. There's more focus on the baking process. That's what people really want to see."
The plan has been to get the machine marketable by starting the buzz at home. Every detail was in place -- including a successful debut at the International Baking Industry Exposition in 2007 -- to take the Bread Bakery public, beginning in a local grocery store.
The light was green once again.
Then Wilkinson traveled to Ethiopia to visit his daughter, a teacher. He'd been there before, driving a water truck as part a ministry while in college and the country is dear to his heart, he said.
Now even more so. In Ethiopia this time, he met Blake Mycoskie. Mycoskie, founder of TOMS Shoes, turned out to be the holder of the secret ingredient Wilkinson needed to complete the vision for Wilkinson Baking Company.
Since 2006, Mycoskie has been striving to do good with his for-profit company by giving donating one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of TOMS Shoes sold. The program is called "One for One" and has given more than 1 million pairs since its inception.
"He started the company with the purpose of giving away shoes," Wilkinson said. "I spent two days with him and I was convicted of the need for for-profit organizations to become involved in nonprofit projects."
The next question was how could Wilkinson best emulate Mycoskie's mission. "We talked about making bread drops."
Not a great idea, however, according to the advice the businessman received. "We don't want people becoming dependent on getting free bread. People there already know how to bake bread. And they do bake bread."
Clean water, though -- that's the huge problem facing Ethiopia and other countries, he explained. "The girls and the women fetch the water every day. They may have to go as far as four miles and carry five-to-seven gallon buckets on their heads, They develop spine and neck problems. And the girls can't go to school."
And then, "the water is from dirty sources."
Wilkinson returned home, filled with a new plan for his company. After talking it over with his siblings, who share in the leadership, the consensus was that a clean water project was the flavor they wanted to present to the world. "Everybody here was excited," he recalled.
"The Cup of Water" was born and configured. The Wilkinson Baking Company committed to giving 28 percent of the profit from sales of its bread mix to drilling and maintaining wells in Africa. And that's dedicated funding, Wilkinson said. "We'll find another way to pay for administration."
Every bread machine in a store has the potential to fund two wells a years, at the rate of about 77 cups of water per loaf, each year of the life of the well, Wilkinson said. "If we had 1,000 Bread Bakeries out, it becomes fairly significant."
Above the machine, in flat-panel monitors, one slogan puts the ideal succinctly -- "Wilkinson Bread. Buy a loaf. Your planet will thank you."
He's not asking for charity with his bread, however. The product, which began churning out at Super 1 Foods today, is made of the highest quality ingredients his company can procure, Wilkinson said. "There are no chemicals, no artificial preservatives."
The bread -- whole wheat, white, nine grain and honey oat -- will sell for $2.99 to $3.49 per loaf. About what the other premium brands sell for on sale, he noted.
While "fresh" branding is over-used and has lost meaning, his bread can't be seen as anything but, Wilkinson said. "It's hot out of the oven. It's never frozen and sold only on the day it's made. We are trying to redefine 'fresh.'"
The Bread Bakery will be up and running at Super 1 for at least six months as a test run for the company, he added, "We need six months of data, to see whether people are going to buy in."
While the staff at Wilkinson Baking Company have every expectation customers will love their product, those who don't purchase it still get a treat, the company president believes. "If nothing else, people can enjoy the free aroma and the theater of bread."
For more information go to wilkinsonbaking.com or call 509-520-7784.
Sheila Hagar can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8322.